24 September 2009

Olive Oil: a key part of the Mediterranean Diet

Olive oil, a major part of the Mediterranean Diet (see 8/25/09 post) is a natural juice that preserves the taste, aroma, and vitamins of the olive fruit. It can be consumed, as-is, freshly pressed. Some olive tress that are hundreds of years old continue to bear fruit.

Once olives have been picked, they need to be processed immediately or the acidic level will climb too high which affects the flavor. Cleaned olives are run through a press that turns them into a paste. The paste is subjected to the malaxation process (slow mixing so that droplets of oil begin to adhere to other droplets). The paste is put under pressure to get the liquid oil along with water from the fruit. Olive oil is separated from the water which is discarded. When bottled, less than 1% acidic levels result in extra virgin olive oil that is rich and intense in flavor. Olive oil with higher acidic level is referred to as virgin.

The beneficial health effects of olive oil are due to the high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and its high content of antioxidative substances. Olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while raising HDL ("good cholesterol").

Extra virgin olive oil, from the first pressing of the olives, contains higher levels of antioxidants particularly vitamin E and phenols, because it is less processed. Olive oil has helpful benefit on ulcers and gastritis. Also, Spanish research suggests that olive oil in a diet may help prevent colon cancer.

95% of the olive trees cultivated world wide are in the Mediterranean region with most of the production coming from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Near East. In 2002, Spain contributed about 45%of the world's production and in 2006, Turkey accounted for 5% of the world's production.

Greece (see 6/26/09 post) devotes 60% of its cultivated land to olive growing. It's the world's top producer of black olives and has more variety of olives that any other country. It is 3rd in world olive production. About half of the Greek olive oil production is exported yearly with exports mainly going to Europe (Italy in particular). The Republic of South Africa, also a producer of extra virgin olive oil, is seeing an increase in demand for their product.